5-Stars of Open Data Engagement?

[Summary: Notes from a workshop at UKGovCamp that led to sketching a framework to encourage engagement and impact of open data initiatives might contain]

Update: The 5 Stars of Open Data Engagement now have their own website at http://www.opendataimpacts.net/engagement/.

In short

* Be demand driven

* * Provide context

* * * Support conversation

* * * * Build capacity & skills

* * * * * Collaborate with the community

The Context

I’ve spent the last two days at UKGovCamp, an annual open-space gathering of people from inside and around local and national government passionate about using digital technologies for better engagement, policy making and practice. This years event was split over two days: Friday for conversations and short open-space slots; Saturday for more hands-on discussions and action. Suffice to say, there were plenty of sessions on open data on both days – and this afternoon we tried to take forward some of the ideas from Day 1 about open data engagement in a practical form.

There is a general recognition of the gap between putting a dataset online, and seeing data driving real social change. In a session on Day 1 led by @exmosis, we started to dig into different ways to support everyday engagement with data, leading to Antonio from Data.gov.uk suggesting that open data initiatives really needed to have some sort of ‘Charter of engagement’ to outline ways they can get beyond simply publishing datasets, and get to supporting people to use data to create social, economic and administrative change. So, we took that as a challenge for day 2, and in session on ‘designing an engaging open data portal’ a small group of us (including Liz StevensonAnthony Zacharzewski, Jon Foster and Jag Goraya) started to sketch what a charter might look like.

You can see the (still developing) charter draft in this Google Doc. However, it was Jag Goraya‘s suggestion that the elements of a charter we were exploring might also be distilled into a ‘5 Stars’ that seemed to really make some sense of the challenge of articulating what it means to go beyond publishing datasets to do open data engagement. Of course, 5-star rating scales have their limitations, but I thought it worth sharing the draft that was emerging.

What is Open Data Engagement?

We were thinking about open data engagement as the sorts of things an open data initiative should be doing beyond just publishing datasets. The engagement stars don’t relate to the technical openness or quality of the datasets (there are other scales for that), and are designed to be flexible to be able to apply to a particular dataset, a thematic set of datasets, or an open data initiative as a whole.

We were also thinking about open government data in our workshop; though hopefully the draft has wider applicability. The ‘overarching principles’ drafted for the Charter might also help put the stars in context:

Key principles of open government data: “Government information and data are common resources, managed in trust by government. They provide a platform for public service provision, democratic engagement and accountability, and economic development and innovation. A commitment to open data involves making information and data resources accessible to all without discrimination; and actively engaging to ensure that information and data can be used in a wide range of ways.”

Draft sketch of five stars of Open Data Engagement

The names and explanatory text of these still need a lot of work; you can suggest edits as comments in the Google Doc where they were drafted.

* Be demand driven

Are your choices about the data you release, how it is structured, and the tools and support provided around it based on community needs and demands? Have you got ways of listening to people’s requests for data, and responding with open data?

** Provide good meta-data; and put data in context

Do your data catalogue provide clear meta-data on datasets, including structured information about frequency of updates, data formats and data quality? Do you include qualitative information alongside datasets such as details of how the data was created, or manuals for working with the data? Do you link from data catalogue pages to analysis your organisation, or third-parties, have already carried out with the data, or to third-party tools for working with the data?

Often organisations already have detailed documentation of datasets (e.g. analysis manuals and How To’s) which could be shared openly with minimal edits. It needs to be easy to find these when you find a dataset. It’s also common that governments have published analysis of the datasets (they collected it for a reason), or used it in some product or service, and so linking to these from the dataset (and vice-versa) can help people to engage with it.

*** Support conversation around the data

Can people comment on datasets, or create a structured conversation around data to network with other data users? Do you join the conversations? Are there easy ways to contact the individual ‘data owner’ in your organisation to ask them questions about the data, or to get them to join the conversation? Are there offline opportunities to have conversations that involve your data?

**** Build capacity, skills and networks

Do you provide or link to tools for people to work with your datasets? Do you provide or link to How To guidance on using open data analysis tools, so people can build their capacity and skills to interpret and use data in the ways they want to? Are these links contextual (e.g. pointing people to GeoData tools for a geo dataset, and to statistical tools for a performance monitoring dataset)? Do you go out into the community to run skill-building sessions on using data in particular ways, or using particular datasets? Do you sponsor or engage with community capacity building?

When you give people tools – you help them do one thing. When you give people skills, you open the possibility of them doing many things in future. Skills and networks are more empowering than tools. 

***** Collaborate on data as a common resource

Do you have feedback loops so people can help you improve your datasets? Do you collaborate with the community to create new data resources (e.g. derived datasets)? Do you broker or provide support to people to build and sustain useful tools and services that work with your data?

It’s important for all the stars that they can be read not just with engaging developers and techies in mind, but also community groups, local councillors, individual non-techie citizens etc. Providing support for collaboration can range from setting up source-code sharing space on GitHub, to hanging out in a community centre with print-outs and post-it notes. Different datasets, and different initiatives will have different audiences and so approaches to the stars – but hopefully there is a rough structure showing how these build to deeper levels of engagement.

Where next?

Hopefully Open Data Sheffield will spend some time looking at this framework at a future meeting – and all comments are welcome on the Google doc. Clearly there’s lot to be done to make these more snappy, focussed and neat – but if we do find there’s a fairly settled sense of a five stars of engagement framework (if not yet good language to express it) then it would be interesting to think about whether we have the platforms and processes in place anywhere to support all of this: finding the good practice to share. Of course, there might already be a good engagement framework out there we missed when sketching this all out – so comments to that effect welcome too…



Ammended 22nd January to properly credit Antonio of Data.gov.uk as originator of the Charter idea

15 thoughts on “5-Stars of Open Data Engagement?”

  1. As a developer there are a couple of things preventing me from being as productive as I could with government data.

    1. Lack of consistency between councils and government departments in the way that they publish data sets containing similar data. E.g. One council’s data set containing dentists is a completely different structure to another councils.

    2. Lack of a decent/consistent API. Putting a PDF online is not good enough. XML or json documents are better but if the data sets were exposed through proper APIs this would definitely drive developer engagement.

    1. Hey Aidan

      Thanks for your comment. It’s really useful to help highlight the particular focus of an engagement 5-stars: they are encouraging open data initiatives to engage in dialogue with all users of data to get these things right – rather than setting out some specific technical requirements.

      The 5-stars of linked data already provides some clear recommendations on technical standards for open data – but it’s important to recognise that APIs only drive engagement with one section of the possible users of open data – and so open data initiatives need to be listening to their users to progressively improve and move towards better data for all…

  2. I agree that engagement is not about technical standards for open data but in order to be successful you need to have something for people to engage with.

    I would argue that you need to deliver consistent, easily accessible raw data as a starting point. To then make sense of this data and to make it useful to people you need developers to produce applications that anyone can use.

    I think you recognise this when you talk about tools in your post. However, in order to build these tools and for those tools to be useful the data issues need to be sorted out first.

    Without data in a consistent and application accessible format (API) then you don’t have anything for people to effectively engage with.

    To me this isn’t a technical issue it is a putting the cart before the horse issue. 🙂

    1. Hey Aidan,

      I think it’s important to recognise that not all data use involves developers making apps – and not all open data use needs well structured machine readable data. That’s not to devalue app-based uses of data; nor to argue that we don’t need to move towards better structured machine readable data – but, to abuse the metaphor a little – there’s more than one sort of open data cart and horse.

      In more detailed terms – see http://practicalparticipation.co.uk/odi/report/2010/4-2-ogd-use-in-practice-rq2/#7 where I’ve looked at a large number of cases of open data use in practice to describe some of the diversity of forms of open data engagement…


  3. I would suggest that no data use involves developers making apps. A developer producing an app is just a means to an end. The data use doesn’t happen until a user actually picks up the app and uses it to answer a question.
    As an end user I don’t want to have to pick up a raw data set and try to make sense of it. It is just too difficult for the average user and makes your aim of widespread engagement harder to achieve. If on the other hand the data has already been pulled together in a user friendly app/tool/interface then I am more likely to be engaged.

  4. demand driven heads in the right direction but doesn’t go far enough – far more needs to be done to make a market with data amongst people who are traditional activists. the open data stuff tends to presume that people want data and know what ‘data’ means – it doesn’t try anything like hard enough to reach out to people in regular local community meetings, on marches, lobbying the it councillor etc to understand what sorts of data they may need and to help them understand what can be done.

    sometimes it reminds me of one of those terribly clever tech start ups that has a smart product but forgets to do any marketing and then wonders why it folds in a few years

    1. Hey Will,

      Thanks for the comment,

      I’d absolutely agree that demand driven alone is not enough. The focus here is on what the administrative leaders an open data initiative should do to create conditions for a more engaging initiative – but there is far more to be done beyond this – not only by government running open data initiatives, but also by community networks, activists, etc.

      One thing I’m not sure of is how far we should encourage governments to be leading in this outreach, or whether standards for engaging open data initiatives should encourage funding third parties to do this outreach work – or whether that does need autonomous other actors to get involved…


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